Southampton vs Liverpool: Jordy Clasie, Saints’ little big man, working hard to meet demands of the Premier League

Southampton’s Dutch midfielder overcame a lack of height to captain Feyenoord and play at the World Cup. Now he is working hard to meet the physical demands of the Premier League

There are not many midfielders in England like Jordy Clasie. There have been short midfielders, little barrels of muscle like Gary Medel or Nigel de Jong. But what hits you on meeting Clasie up close, as I did in Southampton this week, is not just his height but his build. He is not stocky like De Jong but strikingly slight, even after eight months of hard work in the gym since arriving last summer. Throw in his boyish features and at 24 he could still pass for an enthusiastic youth-teamer.

For Clasie’s whole career he has been told he is not big enough to make it. It nearly cost him his place at the Feyenoord academy, and when he considered moving to AZ Alkmaar they said he was too small too. But he stayed at Feyenoord and became captain, idolised by Holland’s most demanding fans. They still have his banner up at De Kuip, hailing him as “Jordy Clasie, Feyenoord held [hero]”.

In four seasons and 153 appearances in Rotterdam he did enough to earn a place in Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands team, again confounding the doubters and impressing in the Dutch side’s last two games at the 2014 World Cup. The following summer Ronald Koeman, who had been his coach at Feyenoord, signed him for Southampton for £8m, knowing that his life would be very different in the Premier League.

So it has proved, and Clasie freely admits this has been a “hard season” as he tries to get up to speed with the pace of the English game. Koeman told him he might need a year to adjust, and he has made enough progress lately to be confident about his future.

What matters most to Clasie is trust, which is a word he keeps coming back to. Feyenoord trusted him. Van Gaal trusted him. Koeman trusted him, first in Holland, now in England. Clasie has paid all of this back but he feels a strong sense of loyalty to those who believe in him, which is why he is so desperate to succeed at St Mary’s.

His values, ultimately, are family values. He has two children, and looking after them is his priority when he is not playing. He is not a big talker either, and this is his first major interview since signing for Southampton. But then, Feyenoord’s motto is “Geen Woorden Maar Daden” – “Not Words, Just Deeds”.

My other life

 

 

“I live outside Winchester, but next month I move into a house a bit closer to the other Southampton players. After training I never go out in the city. In Holland, sometimes you can do something and nobody knows about it, but in England it is unbelievable how people live for football.”

Although he is from Haarlem, just outside Amsterdam, Feyenoord has always been Clasie’s club. He owes his first interest in football to one of their greatest ever players. Clasie’s father James was good friends with Willem van Hanegem, “the Silent Whisperer”, inspirational No 10 of the Feyenoord team which won the 1970 European Cup and the Dutch team which lost the 1974 World Cup final.

“Everybody knows him as a player, he was amazing,” Clasie remembers. “When I was young, four or five, I played with his youngest son Boy. And I didn’t like football. Then one day – I was five and a half – he came to me and said ‘You go and play football’, and he gave me some boots. And from that moment, it was only in my mind I wanted to play football, football, football. That is why he is so important to my career.”

Clasie played for two local clubs in Haarlem, DSK and EDO, before going on trial at Feyenoord aged seven, and joining the academy. It was a long journey from Haarlem to Rotterdam and back but he did it every day. When he was 10 his parents separated and he lived with his father, who continued to take him. He has “Papa” tattooed on the inside of his right forearm.

The Feyenoord academy, a scattering of pitches next to the stadium, is one of the best in Europe. It is a competitive, tight-knit environment, which produced Robin van Persie and many of the current Netherlands side. Clasie loved it there and impressed, always playing with boys a year older than him. But there was one constant problem – his height, or lack of it.

At 15 he was still only just over 5ft, and one coach at the academy told him he would never be tall enough to play for the first team, so he should look for another club. 

“It was difficult for me,” Clasie remembers. “I was following my dream, then one day a guy said to me to search for another club. I was thinking what was the best decision for me.” 

He went to AZ for a trial but they said he was too small too.Everything changed in 2006 when Stanley Brard took over at the Feyenoord academy. “He gave me confidence and trust,” Clasie says, “and from that moment my mind was changing. I thought he believed in me, so I believed in myself.”

People said I was too short or not strong, but I had one dream

 

Brard brought in Raymond Verheijen, who believed that Clasie had suffered a growth deficit due to expending so much energy training and playing. So Clasie’s workload was reduced to two training sessions per week, and he was often substituted with 20 minutes left in games. He grew six inches in four years, an overdue growth spurt. By 19 he was 5ft 7in and tall enough to play.

“Some people said I had a lot of problems because I was short or not the strongest,” he says. “But I had one dream, to be a pro footballer, and to play at the highest level.”

After a year on loan to Rotterdam neighbours Excelsior, Clasie returned to Feyenoord. Koeman liked his technical ability and football intelligence, which eventually earned him the nickname of “the Dutch Xavi”. 

When Van Gaal was picking his players for the 2014 World Cup, he leant heavily on Koeman’s young Feyenoord side, taking Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Daryl Janmaat and Terence Kongolo along with Clasie.

Clasie had to wait for his chance in Brazil, but will always remember how Van Gaal handled him. 

“In the World Cup, Van Gaal gave every player confidence,” he says. “I think I was the only player who did not play in the tournament until the quarter-final. That was frustrating for me, but he gave me trust and confidence: ‘Your chance is coming, believe me.’ And then we played Argentina and my chance came.” 

Clasie played an hour of the semi-final against Argentina and all of the 3-0 victory over Brazil in the play-off for third place.

The following summer Southampton called and of course Clasie wanted to join. He left with the best wishes of Feyenoord, who gave him an emotional send-off, and joined another club famed for its academy’s steady production of good players. 

The resources gap between England and Holland is so dramatic, though, that Saints’ new Staplewood campus is on a different level from Feyenoord’s rather tatty Varkenoord complex.

“Feyenoord is the biggest club in Holland, with Ajax, but if you see their training ground, and this one, there are so many differences,” Clasie says, sitting on the huge futuristic indoor pitch known as The Dome. “This is unbelievable; here you can be a better player every day.”

That is what Clasie has been doing this year, working hard to toughen up, to adjust to the intensity of the English game. “Physically every player is stronger and faster, you do not get as much time as in Holland,” he says. “In England everything is full speed, 90 minutes at full power.” 

He has been working on the physical and defensive sides of his game, which will help him next year, but he is never going to be Mark van Bommel. “The ball is quicker than everybody,” says Clasie, who knows what he is best at. “I like to be on the ball, and to play, play, play, play.”

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